HOMILY FOR THE MASS FOR 27TH SUNDAY OF ORDINARY TIME, YEAR A
St. Mary’s Basilica Sydney + livestream, 4 October 2020
On a fertile hillside he dug the soil, cleared the stones, planted the vines, built a tower, dug a wine-press. “What more could I have done for you, my vineyard?” the Divine Vigneron cries out in our first reading (Isa 5:1-7). I’ve given you life amidst this wonderful creation, family and friends, faith and forgiveness, individuality and community, talents and opportunities – so many signs of My loving providence. All I get from you is sour grapes!
Parable of the wicked husbandmen by Marten van Valckenborch c. 1585 (Kunsthistorisches Museum)
He is talking to us, of course, as Jesus makes clear in His homily this morning on the very same text (Mt 21:33-43). After giving us all these things, He says, God sent His servants – the prophets and saints – into the vineyard, to collect the harvest. He even sent His own Son. What did He get in return? Prophets assaulted, saints martyred, a cross for His Son and vinegar to drink, more sour grapes. Whatever God does, we seem to take it for granted, even resent it. We block our ears to the message and, when it’s too challenging, we kill the Messenger. We don’t give God His due.
We can sympathise with the vigneron. We’ve all experienced ingratitude: we do our best and get no thanks for it. It annoys us, because we hope for some personal satisfaction, a sense of indebtedness, even admiration from those we’ve helped.
But God isn’t like that. When He seeks our gratitude, it is for our sake. When we worship Him, it is our gain, not His. The reverent gratitude due to God is traditionally called pietas or piety. It’s not a virtue much in vogue today. When people hear the word, they think of old ladies telling their beads. Yet what the word actually means is a grateful reverence to God, as the source of all we have and are. If little old ladies are good at showing that, it’s to their great credit
We have all, at some time or other, seen some natural or human wonder, perhaps the angel-host of the Milky Way at night, or a new-born babe, especially our own. At those moments we stare with open-mouthed wonder, humility, awe, at the beauty, goodness, sheer undeserved gift of it all. Even people who rarely lighten the door of a church know that experience; even those who join us only at Christmas, when the cosmic vision of angels and the earthly hope of a baby coincide.
That emotion, choice and habit of pietas or piety is at the heart of true worship: astonishment, exhilaration, gratitude, for the grace of it all, from our birth and rebirth, of our lives in this glorious if broken world, of the heaven we taste from time to time on earth and are promised in abundance in the world to come.
That pietas should extend from God, as the planter of the vineyard or source of all being, to the soil and vines and farmworkers, those who’ve mediated that being to us: those who’ve gone before us, “marked with the sign of faith”, those who built our Church and society, bequeathing to us institutions, traditions, values and beliefs; those who passed on life and love, truth and beauty to us. They are our ancestors, co-nationals, elders, above all our parents and grandparents.
A recent Vatican letter calling people back to Mass recalls the fourth-century Martyrs of Abitinae who, when tortured and tried under the Emperor Diocletian for attending Mass, declared: “We cannot live without this thing of the Lord”, the Holy Eucharist. In honouring such spiritual ancestors we reinforce our own identity and mission. There are various ways we can pay our debt to our elders, country and saints. But how on earth do we render fitting praise to God? Our thanks seem so pitiful when we consider all we’ve received, from the entire cosmos to the present moment. Even if I give all I have and am to God every minute of every day – and how many of us can honestly say we do that? – it would be a drop in the ocean compared to all we have received.
And so, like a parent who gives her child not only Christmas gifts for themselves, but even presents for the child to give to their parents and siblings, so God gives us the gift to give Him. God gives us the only word, the only thing, remotely adequate to the task: Jesus Christ. He is what we give back to the Father.
The COVID-19 pandemic and public health orders have hit the Churches hard. Churches were closed for a time, then reopened with limited numbers; even now, when community transmission is mercifully so low, we are limited to 100 in a big church, even fewer in a smaller one. Strangely pubs, clubs, reception halls and casinos are permitted 300 at a time; but this cathedral, that is bigger than any of them, is still limited to 100. Nor are pub patrons pressed to wear masks as we are, even though they are rather less reliable distancers.
Mass attendance in Sydney parishes is now somewhere between a third and a half of where it was pre-COVID. That’s challenging, even taking into account the limitations on numbers permitted in church and the fact that the anxious and symptomatic, the elderly and otherwise at risk have been asked to stay home. But after getting used to live-streamed Masses or simply giving it a miss for a while, some may wonder if is it worth coming back?
Well, here’s one good reason, among others. When our Greek neighbours say thank-you they say Ef-haristo (ευχαριστώ); in ancient Greek, Eucharist-o. Paul uses this very word this morning when he says to pray with supplication and thanksgiving (Phil 4:6-9). So, while much of the Mass is seeking, asking, interceding, for this or that, for this person or that, the Mass is also our greatest act of offertory, praise, return, the Eucharist-o, the great Thanksgiving.
God the doting parent gives us Jesus Christ to be the rent we pay the cosmic landowner. His is our only worthy sacrifice. He is the Grange Hermitage, not the sour grapes. To that wonderful gift we add the gift-wrapping of our worship. To Christ’s great gift of Himself at Calvary and in the Mass, we add the ribbons of our hopes and dreams, disappointments, sins and sufferings too; we scribble ‘love from me’ on the gift-card of our Eucharist. As we now render bread and wine and our very selves to Christ on His holy altar, we ask that He transform them into the greatest of all gifts, His very self, for us to offer to the Father.
ANNOUNCEMENT IMMEDIATELY AFTER THE AGNUS DEI
Because current circumstances continue to impede attendance at Mass and reception of Holy Communion, I invite those who are joining us by live-streaming to ask God that by spiritual communion you might receive the graces of sacramental communion. Offer this Mass and your hunger for the Eucharist for the safety of your loved ones, of yourselves and of our world.Top of Form
 Cardinal Robert Sarah, “Let us return to the Eucharist with joy: Letter to the Episcopal Conferences of the Catholic Church,” 15 August 2020 (actually issued in October)
Welcome to St Mary’s Basilica in Sydney, whether physically or by live-streaming, for the Solemn Mass for the 27th Sunday of Ordinary Time. In our epistle this morning St Paul says that whatever you need, entreat God for it with supplication and thanksgiving, and the peace of God, which passeth all understanding, will keep your hearts and minds in the knowledge and love of Him, and of His Son, Christ Jesus (Phil 4:6-9). With that promise in mind, we offer our greatest prayer and thanksgiving, the Mass, and so prepare ourselves to celebrate the Sacred Mysteries…